August 21, 2016, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science, utility and responsibility

The value of science for society and the role of scientists in society has been debated for a long time (and in this context the word ‘science’ generally refers to the natural, physical, biological sciences). Just recently the topic has crept up on us yet again. Some have argued that, in the context of climate change, science/scientists should remain silent and let social scientists speak instead; some have argued that science/scientists should make their voices heard; some have argued that scientists should go back into their barracks; and some have argued that, to demonstrate value, they should come out of their labs and mingle with the people. These are eternal topics which, as one can see, can lead to rather contradictory statements.

Debates about ‘the value of science’ for society, and related issues of the utility of science and the responsibility of scientists, are complex, and I don’t think I am able to articulate any novel insights. However, it might befit us to look back once in a while at what others have said about these topics before – especially if what they had to say say seems sensible and makes sense.

Feynman – science and responsibility

You have all read this before, but it might be good to read it again. In 1955 the physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk on the value of science. Here is some of what he had to say:

“From time to time, people suggest to me that scientists ought to give more consideration to social problems – especially that they should be more responsible in considering the impact of science upon society. This same suggestion must he made to many other scientists, and it seems a be generally believed that if the scientists would only look at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time fooling with the less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it.

It seems to me that we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don’t put full‑time effort on them – the reason being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them.

I believe that a scientist looking at non‑scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy – and when he talks about a non‑scientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter. Since the question of the value of science is not a scientific subject, this talk is dedicated to proving my point – by example.

The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. […] Such power has evident value – even though the power may be negated by what one does. […]

Another value of science is the fun called intellectual enjoyment which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about it, and which others get from working in it. This is a very real and important point and one which is not considered enough by those who tell us it is our social responsibility to reflect on the impact of science on society.

Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.”

Poincaré – science and utility

Fifty years before Feynman, in 1905, the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher Henri Poincaré published a book on the value of science: La valeur de la science. An English translation appeared in 1907, with a special preface. I’ll quote from this preface.

Tolstoi [sic] somewhere explains why ‘science for its own sake’ is in his eyes an absurd conception. We can not know all facts, since their number is practically infinite. It is necessary to choose; then we may let this choice depend on the pure caprice of our curiosity; would it not be better to let ourselves be guided by utility, by our practical and above all by our moral needs; have we nothing better to do than counting the number of lady-bugs on our planet?

It is clear the word utility has not for him the sense men of affairs give it, and following them most of our contemporaries. Little cares he for industrial applications, for the marvels of electricity or of automobilism, which he regards rather as obstacles to moral progress; utility for him is solely what can make man better.

For my part, it need scarce be said, I could never be content with either the one or the other ideal; I want neither that plutocracy grasping and mean, nor that democracy goody and mediocre, occupied solely in turning the other cheek, where would dwell sages without curiosity, who, shunning excess, would not die of disease, but would surely die of ennui. But that is a matter of taste and is not what I wish to discuss. The question nevertheless remains and should fix our attention; if our choice can only be determined by caprice or by immediate utility, there can be no science for its own sake, and consequently no science.

But is that true? That a choice must be made is incontestable; whatever be our activity, facts go quicker than we, and we can not catch them; while the scientist discovers one fact, there happen milliards of milliards in a cubic millimeter of his body. To wish to comprise nature in science would be to want to put the whole into the part. But scientists believe there is a hierarchy of facts and that among them may be made a judicious choice. They are right, since otherwise there would be no science, yet science exists. One need only open the eyes to see that the conquests of industry which have enriched so many practical men would never have seen the light, if these practical men alone had existed and if they had not been preceded by unselfish devotees who died poor, who never thought of utility, and yet had a guide far other than caprice.

As Mach says, these devotees have spared their successors the trouble of thinking. Those who might have worked solely in view of an immediate application would have left nothing behind them, and, in face of a new need, all must have been begun over again.”

The value of science

Doing science guards against this predicament – of having to start all over again, every time a need for something arises. That’s the value of science. More specifically, that is the value of fundamental science, a value from which most instrumental utility flows. This value of science is well wroth preserving. Indeed it is our responsibility as scientists to do so. And, as an extra bonus, science can bring fun and joy and can guard against ennui and boredom.


Image: Four common and slightly similar looking “Bambi”-like ladybirds of Europe. Calvia decemguttata, Adalia decempunctata, Halyzia sedecimguttata and Calvia quatuordecimguttata.




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